Writer/performer Dylan Cole discusses his new play Blank Tiles about a former World Scrabble Champion whose memory – and knowledge of over 200,000 words – is being eaten away by Alzheimer’s disease, and the importance of bringing the disease into the limelight on stage.
My grandmother was crazy. Wild, white, short-cropped hair; a bottom lip that could reach her forehead; and breasts that swung like the pendulum of grandfather clock. Appearances aside, I remember her mostly for her ferocious love of Scrabble. She would appear in the doorway to my bedroom challenging me creepily by whispering the name of the board game as a question. Of course, she was a much better player than I was. She also took far too much pleasure in the linguistic conquest of someone 60 years her junior. For this reason, I quickly lost interest in playing her and saw very little of her in my teenage years. I regret I never had the chance to challenge her once my vocabulary had expanded. As I propelled into puberty, she sadly spent the last few years of her life descending deeper into dementia.
It was a strange coincidence that just a few years after her death I found myself writing and performing a play about that very disease and board game. I never set out to write a play about dementia but I always thought Scrabble would make a good subject for a play. I saw potential drama in the competition, the neurotic, obsessive characters, fun word-play and the marketability of a game known to all around the world. I suppose I could have just have easily done a show about Monopoly, but just like the game, that would take over five years to complete.
The idea of pairing Scrabble with dementia came not from my grandmother though, but simply because I thought it was the most dramatic thing that could happen to a Scrabble player. What happens when you take away something that a person values most? Take away a Scrabble champion’s ability to play Scrabble? How would they cope? So Blank Tiles became a show about a former Scrabble World Champion who has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
It was a huge responsibility. How could I do the gravity of the disease justice? How could I balance the silliness of a board game with the seriousness of such a disease? You never know whether you’ve achieved this until you put it in front of the audience. Thankfully, all the reactions I‘ve had to the show have been the right ones. People have laughed, people have cried and an overwhelming number of people have felt the need to share with me their personal experiences of the disease. Taboo and rarely spoken about moments of people’s lives were now being discussed openly with others.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. Almost everyone has been affected by dementia at some point and it is poised to overtake cancer as the leading cause of death after heart disease. So it seems strange that we do not hear or talk about it more. It is a disease that people often ignore and dismiss as “getting old”. But people have been known to get Alzheimer’s as young as 45. It is a disease that can be extremely isolating as sufferers lose their closest friends and family simply because they don’t understand what is happening or how to support those who have been diagnosed.
Blank Tiles does not make any great comment about the disease. It’s not a call to action. It does not preach, or tell people to donate to charity. But if it gets people talking openly about Alzheimer’s in the same way we talk about cancer, it has done its job. My grandmother was the first person I knew to be diagnosed with dementia, she was not the last.
Dylan Cole performs Blank Tiles at the Assembly George Square Studios at the Edinburgh Fringe from 3rd -28th August.
Tickets available at www.edfringe.com